Land and groundwater contamination is something we have lived with since industrial activity began.

It is present in cities, rural and regional areas all over the world and can be a legacy of past times where safe waste disposal methods were not understood, and potential human health and environmental risks not yet known. Then there’s the potential for more recent contamination – from things like agricultural chemicals to landfills.

Contaminated sites have the potential to impact on human health and the environment in a variety of ways, depending upon type, concentration and locality of contamination, the exposure mechanism (e.g. ingestion, inhalation and so on) and the level of exposure.

Substances like lead and other heavy metals, pesticides, solvents, and hydrocarbons are among a number of things that can cause contamination.

Causes of contamination

Regulation of contamination

The National Environmental Protection (Assessment of Site Contamination) Measure defines contamination as:

‘the condition of land or water where any chemical substance or waste has been added as a direct or indirect result of human activity at above background level and represents, or potentially represents, an adverse health or environmental impact’.

Contaminated land is often a byproduct of our industrial past – a time when our awareness about protecting the environment and human health was much lower than it is now.

EPA has a key responsibility for regulating land and groundwater contamination in Victoria.

It oversees the state’s environmental audit system that is used by planning authorities, government for administering the contaminated land framework, agencies and private businesses to help determine the condition of a site and its suitability for use, or to advise what’s required to make a site suitable for use.

EPA also maintains a Priority Sites Register – a list of sites where a remedial notice relating to potential land or groundwater contamination has been issued.

Local councils and planning authorities also play key roles when it comes to identifying, managing and/or cleaning up contamination, particularly through the application of the Environmental Audit Overlay.

People and organisations found to own or be responsible for creating contamination may also be liable for cleaning it up.

Regulation

Remediation and clean-up

Contamination can be caused, for example, by chemical leaks or spills, poor waste management practices, incomplete combustion of fuels, exposing acid sulfate soils to oxygen (when excavating soil), poor demolition practices and many other activities.

Causes of contamination

Ministerial Direction No.1

Sites that have been contaminated are frequently discovered during changes to land use – for example, from industrial to residential use. In many cases, these can be cleaned up to an appropriate standard at the time that the change of land use occurs.

In some cases, sites are found to present an unacceptable risk to human health or to the environment at times other than when land use changes, and must be dealt with as a priority. Such sites are typically subject to clean-up and/or management under EPA directions.

Priority Sites Register

If you have any concerns that land or groundwater may be contaminated, you can:

  1. Get further information via EPA and other sources, such as State Library Victoria, historical aerial photos, local historical societies, historic land titles, council rates records, Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works plans and the Victorian Heritage Database
  2. Speak with an experienced environmental consultant

If you have any health concerns regarding potential contamination, see your doctor.

Find out more:

EPA relies on the community to help report pollution, environmental hazard/s or other activities potentially harmful to the environment.

Report pollution

Preventing and reducing contamination is vital for a safe and healthy Victoria for generations to come. Here are some simple things you can do:

  • Dispose of all wastes using council-supplied bins or at either council-run or commercial waste transfer stations or landfills.
  • Don’t bury, stockpile or burn rubbish on your property.
  • Engage a licenced asbestos inspector to assess your home or structures prior to commencing renovation or demolition works. If necessary, engage suitably licenced contractors to remove asbestos.
  • Engage a suitably qualified and experienced environmental consultant to test soil if you suspect it may be contaminated and you are considering moving it from your property.
  • If your soil is contaminated, you are obliged to ensure it is taken to a facility that can lawfully accept it. To find a landfill that can accept your waste, contact your local council.
  • Ensure your waste transporter provides waste receipt dockets from an approved waste disposal facility. Waste receipt dockets are your only guarantee that waste from your site is going to the right place.

There are a range of ways you can find out more about potential land and groundwater contamination.

Inexpensive soil sample tests like VegeSafe are a practical way for people to test for metals and understand more about their soil.

Alternatively, you may wish to contact a qualified and experienced environmental consultant if you require a more comprehensive land and/or groundwater assessment. A contaminated land consultant may discuss your concerns, devise an appropriate sampling strategy, collect samples and submit them to an accredited laboratory. They may compare the analytical results to published human health standards and environmental standards and guideline values — and provide you with advice.

Testing for contamination

Page last updated: 28/08/19